Political rhetoric, pundits, and prognostications have been filling the airwaves for months in anticipation of the November election. What better moment to immerse ourselves in a little presidential history?
To create our list of must-see presidential sites (in order of when the men served), we consulted presidential historians and political scientists. Our experts were particularly drawn to places where they glimpsed the private man behind the public figure, but they split on the value of the modern presidential libraries and their museums. Joan Hoff, research professor of history at Montana State University and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, sees them as comparable to the Egyptian pyramids, designed merely “to glorify the presidency” and “whitewash” controversial events.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, argues that they can still be fascinating—provided you understand you’ll be seeing mainly the “positive side of the ledger.”
George Washington’s Virginia plantation highlights his career as a working farmer and slaveholder. “It is also his final resting place, much to the chagrin of the planners of the U.S. Capitol, who had set aside a tomb for the statesman and war hero,” noted Sabato. In 2006, Mount Vernon unveiled two major additions: the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, with state-of-the-art theaters and nearly 700 artifacts.
Don’t miss: The functioning reconstruction of Washington's own distillery, which was “once the largest in all of North America,” according to Sabato.
“Monticello” (with the last two syllables pronounced like the stringed instrument) means “little mountain,” and Thomas Jefferson’s stunning neoclassical refuge—which he himself designed—commands beautiful views of the Albemarle County, Va., countryside. It is filled with French furniture and artifacts representing his eclectic interests and genius for invention, including an apparatus that allowed him to simultaneously create two copies of every letter he wrote.
Sabato was moved by sight of the bed where Jefferson died—on July 4, 1826, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence, which he had penned, was signed. “John Adams died on the same day, adding to the freakishness of it all,” Sabato said. And as Adams died, he whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” But Jefferson had died just a few hours before at Monticello.
Plantation tours touch on the lives of the enslaved Hemings family, including Jefferson’s alleged mistress, Sally.
Don’t miss: The bust of Alexander Hamilton in the entrance hall, “Jefferson’s political enemy, but one, obviously, for whom he had high respect,” said Sidney M. Milkis, White Burkett Miller Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.
In Orange, Va., the lifelong home of James Madison, “the Father of the Constitution,” is undergoing an architectural restoration, which will be capped by a ceremony on Constitution Day (Sept. 17, 2008) featuring U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Summer tours highlight the progress of the restoration, which will return the mansion to its appearance in the 1820s.
Don’t miss: The Visitor Center and Education Center display artifacts and furniture owned by our fourth president and his wife, Dolley.